Top 3 mistakes to avoid when identifying company values

Values create cohesion among teams and employees in complex organisations. Read this article by Joe McDevitt to find out how to create good company values.
Top 3 mistakes to avoid when identifying company values
Joe McDevitt

Successful companies not only embody good values but also self-consciously identify, share and promote these values with their employees, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders. First and foremost, values are a great way of creating cohesion among teams and employees in complex organisations.

But the process of selecting values that you want to pin up on the wall, be proud of, and use as a template for creating a great company culture, is easier said than done. Worse than that, the process is riddled with opportunities to screw up and create enormous problems down the road. Here are three big mistakes to look out for:

1) The cult of personality

There’s a good chance your founder or CEO will be leading or heavily involved in identifying values — and rightly so. However, there is a temptation for this senior person to reflect on what made him/her successful to this point and prioritise values that reflect their own character, personality or way of doing things. In some cases, this is natural — a good CEO’s typical behaviours may be reflected in values to the benefit of the company as a whole. But ask yourself during the process: is each value truly a company value, or are these values simply trying to clone a senior leader in the company?

2) Creating robots

Values should act as a guide for how a company gets things done and what the company prioritises. Behaviours and decisions should broadly align with these company values, but this does not mean everyone should behave or think in exactly the same way. In fact, values that lead to a lack of diversity or divergent thinking are downright dangerous.

I spoke with a company recently that for five years used their values to assess “company fit” for new hires. Two of the values they hired for were risk-taking and being a self-starter — i.e. are you willing to take risks and take action without managerial approval? Turns out, if everyone you hire embodies these values, there is no one in the room to ask difficult questions when these risks are being taken. The company grew to around 150 employees in 2017 and then suddenly hit the buffers. The company was promising work it couldn’t deliver and began losing major clients to competitors.

The risk-taking culture — enshrined in their values and hiring process — meant the company was destined to meet this fate. Last year the company laid off more than half of its workforce and it is now hiring for people that score lower on the risk-taking scale in the quiz. The company identified values that made it highly successful to begin with, but the values ultimately left the company overstocked in one type of person and one type of thinking. The lesson? Make sure your values leave room for divergent thinking — dissenting voices are important. And try to anticipate how certain values might manifest in the type of people you hire.

3) Aspirational rather than authentic

Is your company genuinely collaborative when solving problems, or do you want it to be more collaborative when solving problems? Does your company currently adapt well to change, or do you wish it adapted well to change? There’s a huge difference between where your company is, and where you want it to be. There is nothing wrong with using values to try to reinforce positive behaviours, but if a value is simply an unrelated aspiration that does not reflect reality, then it will not get buy-in from employees. Given a choice, it’s better to be authentic than aspirational.

A great way to be more authentic is to ensure employees from all over the company, at every level, get a chance to contribute in some way to the values selection process. This ensures there is alignment between the leadership and the rest of organisation and the values genuinely reflect company culture.

There are circumstances in which creating new, aspirational values is necessary. For instance, if a company requires a change in culture, then sometimes selecting values that are aspirational is a necessity. But in this case, the new values are typically part of a broader organisational change project. Uber is a great example of this: In November 2017 it published a new set of values intended to help change its toxic culture. But these new values were part of a bigger change project in which a new CEO was hired, and a corporate education programme was rolled out for all employees. Aspirational values tend to work better as part of a bigger change effort.

Choosing company values is only the start. How a company uses those values going forward is also crucial. Are there certain parts of the company that are more aligned with these values than others? Are employees that are a particularly good fit in terms of values also better at hitting KPIs? What do employees really think about the company culture as a whole — is it getting better or worse with time?

The only way to accurately answer these questions is with data gathered from employees at all levels. And this is where technology is now enabling companies to gather this data casually and efficiently. The Hi5 app is designed to do precisely this — provide insights on company culture that were previously unknown and unquantifiable.

If you are beginning a values identification process, then this Hi5 Values Creator tool is a useful of throwing up some ideas and help you articulate the essence of your company culture.